More evidence Californians are overpaying for housing - Part V

How we can protect the environment and develop affordable non-subsidized workforce housing while ensuring local governments have fair general control over land use...

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

The historical debate between the housing affordability crisis, the environment and local control continues. California could have a milestone event written in its history books very soon should the state government get on board with this story and write its next chapter.

Last month, Governor Jerry Brown announced plans to clear the way for lower-cost marketplace housing and better buyer choices for all of us through a proposal that would better allow developers to address the housing inventory shortage. If made into law, the Streamlining Affordable Housing Approvals proposal essentially would allow urban developments with units set aside for lower-income families to bypass strict environmental impact rules now mandated through the California Environmental Quality Act. The new proposal would allow such construction to proceed without neighborhood review processes provided that the development is compatible with the current local land use and zoning, is infill smart growth, and offers attached units.

According to the proposal currently as written, the developer would need to fulfill the following five requirements in order to qualify to pass through the current red tape:
  • The applicant or proponent submits the development application to the local government with its intent to utilize this provision and declares under oath that it conforms with its requirements.
  • The development is consistent with the current local general plan and zoning standards in effect at the time of application.
  • The home units have to be attached and infill within in an already developed area, meaning the housing must be on land adjacent to existing residential, commercial, public institutional, or transit passenger facility or at least 75% of the site's perimeter is developed with these uses.
  • The housing must have at least 20% of the units purposed for lower-income households that make 80% or less than the area's median income.

    The assisted housing threshold is significantly reduced if the infrastructure is built within an 1/2 mile of a major public transit bus stop, train or ferry station with peak hour service frequencies of 15 minutes or better with weekend runs. If built near an area with these public transportation amenities, then only 10% of the units must be set aside for the lower-income households or 5% purposed for those making 50% or less than the locale's income average.
  • Unless already zoned for housing, the development cannot take place on government-defined prime farmlands, wetlands, fire danger areas, hazardous waste sites, floodplains, flood ways, and earthquake fault zones.   

Also, existing tenants living in places that would be redeveloped would have some direct help from the state. Projects that would directly displace existing residents such as demolishing an existing residential building being rented would render the residents eligible for benefits under the California Relocation Assistance Act which would cover advisory services, moving expenses and replacement housing assistance with both purchase and rental options.

This proposal was originally bundled into the state's annual budget bill but was tabled until August. If the development follows this criteria and qualifies, the local governments would no longer be allowed to mandate per-project discretionary review such as mandating a conditional use permit. Also, since such approvals would be ministerial as defined by the state proposal, such infill would be exempt from CEQA law and all of its abuses like trivial red tape and lawsuits not related to the environment.

Even with the affordable unit percentage mandates, this will, without question, lower overall costs for developers, improve profit margins for smart growth development and spark better competition, especially for housing development near major public transportation routes. The cost savings can then be passed to the buyer or renter.

After reading through the criteria, Brown's proposal has transit-oriented "Smart Growth" written all over it. And that's what the major environmental groups have historically promoted:

Livable communities, designed for people rather than for automobiles. This requires changing the layout of many new developments, as promoted by the ├Čneo-traditional├« planners and New Urbanists. - Sierra Club Stop Sprawl Campaign

Vacant and abandoned properties contain enormous, untapped economic potential and recognizing these kinds of properties as valuable assets is a crucial part of reviving flagging economies. Congress and the federal government can play a critical role in incentivizing the private sector to invest in our communities and redevelop vacant and abandoned properties. - Smart Growth America

Interestingly enough, Brown's proposal ran into opposition from the political left when it was announced in May. According the Los Angeles Times, this happened:

A coalition of labor and environmental organizations has come out against the proposal, arguing that the governor’s plan would harm public health because it allows housing projects to sidestep the state’s premier environmental law.

“It would be a disaster for local government, local communities, the environment and the citizens of California,” said a May 18 letter to state lawmakers from the State Building & Construction Trades Council, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other labor and environmental groups.

In addition, the Sacramento Business Journal printed this:

“It would simply tie the hands of local government in approving major development projects with significant impact on local communities,” wrote the authors of the letter, which was signed by the State Building and Construction Trades Council, multiple other construction unions and some environmental groups.

When I fact-checked this coverage, I was not able to find any published press releases, published letters or official statements to back up the reportage; so I won't call out these organizations for now.

But why on Earth would big labor oppose this proposal? Shouldn't the unions back this as a building boom in infill housing would create thousands of construction jobs for the middle class all over the state? If developers have to look for construction labor, wages have to go up because businesses would have to compete for the workers by paying them more, especially if it involved two competing firms. Plus, all of those new workers would still have the right to organize which they should if their employer was defying or dodging labor laws or provided an unsafe working environment.

There is an argument that could answer this question. Some say that these special interests oppose the Governor's proposal because they can use CEQA to delay projects in order to get backroom labor deals from developers. That means, environmental law could be exploited to pander to labor unions as well as the lawyer lobby. If that's true, that is CEQA abuse at its absolute finest. Either way, that type of crony capitalism has to be stopped, period.

Plus, it would be absolutely foolish for any environmental group on the planet to obstruct what is being proposed. It is a stone cold fact that CEQA abuse and other government red tape has blocked infill transit oriented development in the past or made it too costly to the point where builders can't profit from it. This type of smart growth urban development is meant to improve the environment by giving workers an option to live closer to work and utilize the numerous transportation choices available other than driving alone in a car from a faraway home.

But under current law, the market generally has no other choice than build bigger homes on cheap undeveloped land in order to profit. That has contributed to Southern California's urban sprawl disaster and congested freeways. Yes, there is some infill development happening right now in developed areas. But current smart growth projects in Los Angeles and Irvine involve premium apartment and condo units that are far too expensive for the average worker.

To be fair, the opposition's argument over local control does carry some valid points. Jurisdictions need to retain such authority to govern what type of development can go where. But that is no excuse to throw out the entire proposal.

Under the provision, the local governments would retain strong control of their jurisdictions if this proposal as written were to become law.

After all, counties and cities would still be able to define their local land use and general plans. Specific zones such as community master plans, downtown districts and transit villages could still be designated. They would continue to be able to predefine the unit density per acre, accessibility and parking space requirements into the rules. That means if the local government determines that a project is inconsistent with the existing general plan and zoning standards and rules, it can still reject the project. For example, a 50-story 2,000 unit apartment tower cannot be built on land zoned for 3-8 story buildings and 100 units-per acre. Local governments would also have 30 days within the application submission to give written documentation of, and explain the reasons for the non-compliance.

With all that said, that also means the local governments have a responsibility for their people to conduct general land use plan updates regularly with transparency and public outreach as their populations and demographics change. That would ensure the people still have their voice heard within the public forums on decisions on urban development in general. A good example of such transparency were the land use public hearings for Temecula's Jefferson Avenue corridor and Southwest Riverside County's Highway 395 corridor.

A local government's general plan and zoning like Jefferson Avenue and Highway 395 are intended to plan for prospective development. The new provision will give these jurisdictions an incentive to better plan for growth and define what types of development can go where.

Now is the time to act

"Not in by backyard" and NIMBY obstructionists are certainly a major contributing factor to the housing crisis. Some in the lawyer lobby have resorted to greed in capitalizing on CEQA loopholes from infill smart growth projects. And some in the labor and environmental lobby may be contributing to this as well.

The Governor's proposal is only a starting point and has to be strengthened so that hardworking Californians are not priced out of a home. Keep in mind some cities will react by keeping their general plans outdated or adopting red-tape hurdles of their own to hinder development. But Southern California is rich in the number of cities and there are many like LA, Irvine and Temecula that would welcome infrastructure expansion through updated land use policies to handle population growth demands.

The state government did approve a final spending plan a few weeks ago with a hint that it may go along with the Governor's proposal given that Brown agreed to set aside money for subsidized housing; that is something this ideological legislature backs.

I will continue to track the progress of this reform bill when this continues in August. Chances are there will be some refinements made before it reaches Brown's desk, but this proposal could be a major starting point in finally solving our decades-long history of marathon commutes, traffic congestion, urban sprawl and expensive housing. The point where California workers can finally live somewhere decent near their jobs is within reach and history will record this new era of smart growth workforce housing development.

Let's get Southern California moving!


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